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Egyptian authorities should immediately drop all charges filed against a blogger for his online writings and release him without delay, Human Rights Watch said today. The trial began on January 25 of `Abd al-Karim Nabil Suleiman, better known by his pen name Karim Amer, the first Egyptian blogger to be tried for the contents of his blog. He faces up to nine years in prison.

Suleiman, a 22-year-old former student of Islamic jurisprudence at Al-Azhar University, appeared before a public prosecutor on November 7, 2006, following a complaint from the university, to answer charges of “spreading information disruptive of public order,” “incitement to hate Muslims,” and “insulting the president.” He had frequently posted articles criticizing Islam, the authorities at Al-Azhar, and President Hosni Mubarak on his blog. Prosecutors ordered him detained pending investigation and renewed his detention four times before his trial opened at Muharram Bek Court in Alexandria on Thursday. The judge is expected to rule on the case when the court reconvenes on February 1.

“Charging someone for the peaceful expression of their views is sadly not new in Egypt,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “By curbing a blogger’s freedom to post, the government may be trying to close an important space for Egyptians to speak openly about events and issues that worry them.”

Plainclothes security agents first arrested Suleiman on October 26, 2005 at his home in Muharram Bek, a district of Alexandria that days earlier had been the site of deadly sectarian riots, and held him for 12 days without charge. Four days earlier, he had posted comments on his blog criticizing the Muslim rioters and Islam. In March 2006, a disciplinary board at Al-Azhar found him guilty of blaspheming Islam and ordered him expelled from the university.

The charges against Suleiman stem from laws that contradict guarantees of free expression under international law. Article 102(bis) of the Penal Code allows for the detention of “whoever deliberately diffuses news, information/data, or false or tendentious rumors, or propagates exciting publicity, if this is liable to disturb public security, spread horror among the people, or cause harm or damage to the public interest.” Article 176 of the Penal Code allows for the imprisonment of “whoever instigates…discrimination against one of the people’s sects because of race, origin, language, or belief, if such instigation is liable to disturb public order.” Article 179 allows for the detention of “whoever affronts the President of the Republic.”

Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which Egypt became a party in 1982, guarantees the right to freedom of expression, including the “freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media.”

Article 19(3) of the ICCPR allows restriction of expression only in limited circumstances, namely in the interest of “respect of the rights or reputations of others” or “the protection of national security or of public order (ordre public), or of public health or morals.” Such restrictions must be “necessary.” These exceptions are narrowly framed, and the burden of demonstrating their validity rests with the state, which must justify any content ban by showing that restrictions are necessary to achieve a specific and legitimate purpose within one of the enumerated exceptions.

“The Egyptian government should immediately drop all charges against Suleiman and release him,” Whitson said. “Suleiman is guilty of nothing but peacefully exercising his right to free speech. Instead of trying a blogger for exercising his rights to free expression, the government should repeal or amend the laws that abridge those rights.”

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